US warns over protection plan for Omar

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The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, says that the United States would not stand for any arrangement that allowed Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to remain free and "live in dignity" in the region.

Asked about reports of a deal between Omar and Afghan opposition forces to surrender the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, Mr Rumsfeld said the US made clear to opposition forces "our very strong view on this."

"Our co-operation and assistance with those people would clearly take a turn south if something were to be done in respect to the senior people in that situation that is inconsistent with what I have said," he said.

Previously, Mr Rumsfeld had said that the US goal was to ensure that Taliban and al-Qa'ida senior leaders were unable to continue conducting terrorist acts, and the United States wanted them brought to justice.

Mr Rumsfeld, pressed whether he would insist Omar face the US justice system, pointed out that the Pentagon doesn't have "enough troops on the ground to control the country" and therefore will have to rely on opposition forces in dealing with any Taliban or al-Qa'ida fighters who may surrender.

The White House also turned aside the idea of extending protections to Omar.

"The president believes very strongly that those who harbor terrorists need to be brought to justice," said the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer. When asked whether President George Bush believes that Omar had harbored terrorists, Fleischer replied, "Yes."

Omar has reportedly agreed to surrender Kandahar to tribal forces and put himself under the protection of tribal leaders. Hamid Karzai, the US-backed head of a new interim government, told CNN that Omar could be afforded protection, but only if he promised to "renounce terrorism".